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Piers Davies

From the latest NZLJ

Leading cases in song

Piers Davies, Wackrow Williams & Davies Ltd, Auckland finds song can help memory and understanding

There are those who have a photographic memory: once read, the essence is retained ready for instant recall. The rest of us struggle to retain key facts and information about court cases and legal principles and use repetition, summaries, mantras and mnemonics. Computers can sort out all possible decided cases for sifting through but that is not practical in an emergency or where we are out of electronic range. In any event the ever expanding data bases increase the amount of possibly relevant information and the number of decided cases and can obscure the legal principles.

It helps that some key cases have unusual names like Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Co [1893] 1 QB 256 or unusual facts like the deceased and decomposing snail in the ginger beer bottle in Donoghue v Stevenson [1932] AC 562 or relate to intriguing activities such as Mosley v News Group Newspapers Ltd [2008] EWHC 1777. Other cases are memorable because of their linkage to literature like The “Popi M” [1985] 2 Lloyd's LR 1 where the House of Lords demolished the Sherlock Holmes method of analysis used by the High Court Judge.

One of the most popular learning devices is the mnemonic system which helps employ information already stored in long term memory to make memorisation an easier task. Often these mnemonic systems have a humorous or visually intriguing aspect. They were much cultivated by Greek philosophers and were referred to by Plato and Aristotle. Acronyms are one type of mnemonic system and it can be used in computer programming as well. One example is using the phrase “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain” to memorise the colours of the rainbow (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.

Professor Stephen Todd has been making erudite legal principles understandable for many years in text books and at the Universities of Canterbury and Nottingham. He has now written a book “Leading Cases in Song — a Lawyer’s Companion” (ThompsonReuters 2013) which contains a number of short operas and songs which sum up key legal principles. All of these are based upon the songs and music of Gilbert and Sullivan. One of these short operas “Very Private Lives” is based on Campbell v MGN Ltd [2004] 2 AC 457 and Mosley v News Group Newspapers Ltd. Not only is the plot of this opera highly entertaining with Act 2 being entitled “The Racing Car Supremo and the Tart” and Act 3 “In Flagrante,” but, if the phrase “Princess Ida and Naomi Campbell meet Mike Hosking” is remembered as a mnemonic, the current law of invasion of privacy is encapsulated, including the differences between UK and New Zealand Law. Princess Ida provides the catchy tune which outlines Eady J's decision in Mosley v News Group Newspapers Ltd, Naomi Cambell is the plaintiff in the other key UK case and Mike Hosking was the plaintiff who applied unsuccessfully for an injunction to prevent the printing of photographs of his children in a magazine after they had been photographed in a public street (Hosking v Runting [2005] 1 NZLR 1 (CA)).

The origin of this book lie 20 years ago when Professor Todd was asked to contribute an item to the Canterbury Law Students Review and he chose Donoghue v Stevenson. As Professor Todd said in an interview on National Radio on 11 February “litigation is inherently dramatic” and Mrs Donoghue's action is a prime example. The short opera sets out the facts and a deft analysis of the legal arguments sung to the music of the “Willow, Tit-Willow” from the Mikado. The final judgment creating a “Rule of Liabilitee” is sung to “I am the Ruler of the Queen’s Navy” from HMS Pinafore. Further songs and two other short operas have followed over the past 20 years and Professor Todd has been known to use one or more of these songs to break up a lecture.

Gilbert and Sullivan songs are eminently singable, ideal for professional and amateur alike. They stick in the mind almost to the point of irritation. Gilbert and Sullivan operas were the staple of school productions until about 30 or 40 years ago when they were overtaken by “Les Misérables,” rock operas, kapa haka and rap.

It is interesting to speculate on how W S Gilbert would feel about this book. He could be a prickly individual, but I am sure he would be delighted to hear that students and lawyers were revelling in his songs 100 years after his death. After all, he did have a brief career as a barrister, not entirely successful; it is said he only had five clients during one year. He would also be amused that some of his humorous phrases like “let the punishment fit the crime” and “short sharp shock” are much beloved of politicians, commentators and critics of our justice system and prisons.

So who will this book appeal to, apart from the law students who have greatly enjoyed Professor Todd's lectures and contributions to the Canterbury Law Students Review. I believe it will give considerable pleasure to Gilbert and Sullivan enthusiasts and lawyers and all others who enjoy the richness and oddities of the legal world and its bizarre and unusual cases.

The musical format arrangement is by John Pattison and, for those who actually wish to sing the songs, the sheet music is included in the last 100 pages of the book. The book has numerous quirky illustrations by Murray Nicol and Professor Todd says in the introduction that there are tentative plans to produce a CD of some of the songs. I look forward to it.

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